06 April 2019

Unusual and Unanticipated Family Connections - The Edward Gorey Connection

I spent last Christmas in Newport, Rhode Island visiting with cousins and an aunt who live there.  (Some of our ancestors were original settlers of Aquidneck Island and we’ve had a presence in Newport ever since, but that’s a future topic.)  This Christmas in Newport, I gave the same gift to a number of my family members, purchasing one for myself as well: the new biography of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery.  This book, Born to be Posthumous, was perfect for the family, as we all admire and appreciate Edward Gorey’s macabre and unusual art and writing styles.  Ask anyone in our family who is their favorite Gashlycrumb Tiny and we will, to a person, answer Neville.  (He died of ennui.)  My cousin Sophy, always on the same wavelength with me, gave me a copy for Christmas too.  Luckily, I divide time between Atlanta and DC, so we now have a copy in each residence.

Along with the book, I was able to share with them more information which came as a surprise to them: we have a family connection to Edward Gorey!  My mother’s second cousin, John Black (whose name and photograph you have seen in other of my blog postings), was a Harvard classmate of “Ted” Gorey, as they knew him then.  Before he died, John asked me to scan and print some select photos from an album he had collected in the 1950s and 1960s.  Two of those photos were of his friend Ted Gorey reclined on a couch (or a sofa, as I think Gorey would have called it) in John’s apartment on the Upper East Side in New York City.  There is no date on the two photos, but other photos on the page are dated 1953 and 1963, so the Gorey photos could date from anytime in the 1950s or early 1960s.  When I saw the Gorey photos, I quizzed John about the connection, which is when I found that they were Harvard classmates.  He also told me an amusing story about Gorey that I’ll get into later in this post.

A few weeks later I was getting caught up on unread periodicals and found the latest alumni magazine from my alma mater, Occidental College (“Oxy”), in Los Angeles.  To my surprise, I saw an article feature concerning Mark Dery and this new book of his.  Turns out he is also an Occidental College graduate, 3 years ahead of me (as is his wife), yet another small world coincidence!  I immediately wrote an email to the editor of the magazine to exclaim on the fact that this had been my primary Christmas gift to my family this year and to share the family connection.  I also sent a scan of one of the photos from John’s album (right) and invited the editor to share my email and the photo with Dery if the school were so inclined.  Within 30 minutes of pressing “send” on that email I received an email from Mark Dery, the author, himself!    

I was somewhat embarrassed, as I had not actually started the book (I have since read it, to my great enjoyment and enlightenment into Gorey and his life).  Dery, in his email to me, indicated that he had seen the photo before, provided to him by one of Gorey’s Harvard and New York crowd, one Freddy English, after Dery interviewed English for the book.  It was my turn to be surprised, since I’d heard the name Freddy English for years from my cousin John and others of his friends with whom I have also been acquainted.  Had I read even a short way into Dery’s book, I would have seen an early reference to Freddy English and I’d already know that the Harvard connection had been well researched.  In fact, Freddy and I had some contact after my cousin John died – I had a trove of correspondence that had been written to John and several years ago I returned to Freddy his own letters to John. 

Out of Harvard in 1950, John moved to New York, where much of the Harvard crowd, Gorey and English among them, also settled, and acquired his apartment on the Upper East Side.  He divided his time between the family home in Mansfield, OH and the apartment in New York for more than a decade, until he made the decision to spend his time in London instead of New York.  When he made the move to England (John then spent half his time in London every year for the rest of his life), Freddy English took over John’s apartment and lives there to this day.
Woodside, my cousin John's childhood home in Mansfield, OH
With this backstory in mind, it was, therefore, a quick blast of nostalgia to encounter the name Freddy English again through this chance encounter with a fellow graduate of Occidental College.  As I have mentioned in past blogs, John Black was a huge influence in my adult life and I still feel his loss – coincidences like this bring him back to the forefront of my memory, which I find comforting.

I replied to Dery’s email with more of the background and the story that John had told me about Gorey, specifically, that “Ted” had two sexual encounters in his entire lifetime, the first time was so ghastly he tried it one more time to be sure (that it was awful) (and it was), and never had sex again for the rest of his life.  Again, had I read Dery’s book prior to making contact with him, I would have known that his research had revealed a single instance, but not a second.  Sadly, mine is third party information, so it can’t be substantiated, at least not through my own original source, John.  But it is an intriguing potential added part of the puzzle that Dery has pieced together for us in his biography.  Whether it was once or twice, Gorey was strongly influenced by the encounter(s) and then the lack thereafter.

After these emails with Mark Dery, I emailed the family members to whom I had given his book for Christmas to update them on the exchange, to tell them I was in contact with the author (I was a celebrity in my family for a day – we are a book-loving crowd and revere authors) and I further explained the photo, the connection to Freddy English, the apartment, and our cousin John.  Late that night I received an email from my mother, very short and cryptic “To add to the story, I know Freddy English.” Nothing more.

There is no circumstance I could imagine under which my mother, John’s second cousin (but 16 years younger than John), would have had any reason to know about John’s Harvard classmates.  I only knew some of the names myself because of the time I spent with John through the years, grilling him about his past and his unique experiences.  Every visit we would spend at least one night staying up late drinking whiskey and trading stories, so Freddy came up during several of those evenings.  Freddy was also still top of mind for me, having sent him back his letters to John so recently.  Then I thought that perhaps she had met Freddy when she was a young mother.  I was born in New York City in 1963, the same year that appears on the page of the Gorey photos, and a time that our cousin John was still living in his Upper East Side apartment.  Perhaps they visited at some point and she met Freddy then (could I have been there as an infant??).  The speculation was fascinating and fruitless, as there was a much more surprising connection.

My cousin John in 1963, the year I was born in NYC,
where he, Ted Gorey, and Freddy English all lived too
It being late, I had to wait until the following morning to ring up my mother to ask for the details.  It turns out that she met Freddy English at the Kopan Monastery, a Buddhist temple just outside of Kathmandu in Nepal, when they both chanced to be there on meditation retreats.  She remembers Freddy distinctly for a number of reasons.  First, she was (and is) impressed that he is a full-fledged convert to Buddhism, living the lifestyle and following its tenets, something she admires.  She also recalled a conversation in which she was involved with him and an elder at the monastery. Freddy was asking for guidance: Buddhist writings cannot be destroyed or discarded, but Freddy had amassed a large collection and didn’t want to keep it all.  He was discussing the difficulty of what to do with the items he no longer wanted.  My mother volunteered to take them from him and distribute them among her friends.  My mother now lives in North Carolina, and when they both had returned to the states, they started a correspondence, Freddy sending his excess materials to my mother who then distributed them to friends and acquaintances.  My mother believes the Kopan meeting took place around 2009 or 2010.  When they met, there was no reason at all for either of them to know about or discover the connection: that Freddy was an old Harvard and New York friend of her second cousin John.

After she told me all of this, I rang up Freddy to tell him about the connection, to which he replied that he had just run across her name in his address book and couldn’t remember why she was there!  I was glad to be able to remind him.

I have since sent Mark Dery a few more photos from John Black’s album, but, I am sorry to say, there are no photographs of John with Ted Gorey.  There is one photo of a few of the other young men who were part of that crowd, one of whom figures in Dery’s book, namely Frank O’Hara, the influential poet, pictured with Bill Weaver, one of John’s longtime friends, famous in his own right for being, until his death in 2013, the one person that Umberto Eco would trust to do the Italian to English translations for his books.

For the time being, my part of this story is over.  But there is one more piece to this tapestry that is undiscovered, and I plan to look into it one day.  John left his extensive journals to the New York City Public Library manuscripts division, where they, along with some select other family journals and ephemerae, occupy 28 boxes.  John wrote daily entries in his journals from January 1936, age 11, until just a few days before he died in October 2014 at the age of 90.

In the finding aid created by NYPL for the collection, there are broad comments on the contents and individuals mentioned.

“Black’s social circles contained prominent scholars and academics, especially historians, and people working in literature and the arts.  Friends whose names appear frequently in the diaries include Peter Barnes, Marion Coughlin, Frederick English, Bentley Gilbert, Jerome Kohn, Ivan Morris, John Sandoe, Werner Vortriede, William Weaver (Bill), Lulie Westfeldt, and Leslie Workman.”

“Entries for Black’s first four years in New York, 1950 to 1954, record his efforts to write a novel and his … regular sessions with the Jungian psychoanalyst Frances Wickes.  Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Allen Ginsberg make appearances, along with other New York-based writers and artists of the period.”[i]

It has long been my plan to go through all of John’s journals to create a comprehensive index of people, places, and events.  Such an extensive project will likely not be able to be performed until I am retired – it would be the work of many weeks and I am unlikely to ever be able to take such time while employed full time.  But it is a dream of mine, now made more vivid by the desire to find his entries about Ted Gorey, likely among the “New York-based writers and artists of the period” mentioned above.

Back to the present day, this narrative is a testament to the power of coincidence.  I created a diagram to show the connections amongst those involved in this story.  The six degrees of separation standard notwithstanding, there is no more than one degree of separation in this little tale of coincidence.

Is it a coincidence that so many in my family are great fans of Edward Gorey? Not really, since Gorey appealed to people with an alternative bent in the 1960s and 1970s, which certainly describes my mother, her sisters, and those of us in the subsequent generation.  The real coincidence is that our cousin, John Black, knew Gorey at Harvard and in New York and, indeed, had photos of Gorey reclining in John’s New York apartment.

Another coincidence is that Mark Dery and I were at Occidental College at the same time, 1981-82, which provided me a quick introduction to him and allowed us both to explore the topic of Edward Gorey just a little bit more.  Occidental is a small school where, although it’s unusual for seniors and freshmen to mix extensively, I knew enough of his fellow 1982 graduating class that we likely have acquaintances in common. 

In my mind, however, the biggest coincidence is that of the chance encounter in Nepal at a Buddhist monastery!  Several years ago, when I was preparing to return to Freddy English the letters that he had written my cousin John, I held off sending them because Freddy was in Nepal on a retreat.  I remember thinking to myself that I should tell him that my mother goes there every year on the same mission, but I don’t remember if I did so.  I realized it would be akin to someone learning that I visit England regularly and telling me that their mother visits there too.  Perhaps it would spark some fleeting commonality, but that’s it.  It would not have occurred to me to consider possible the connection they made there.

The Takeaway

The family historian is regularly presented with coincidences.  Whether it’s discovering that your own parents were distant cousins when they married (mine were 9th cousins two ways and 10th cousins three ways – a comfortable enough generational gap) or that your favorite cousin was friends with one of your favorite artist/writers. 

As always, it’s important to research these connections to be sure they are correct (one of my mantras, “get the proof!”), but it’s also important to accept that coincidences do exist and that you’ll encounter them.  I made a reference above to a hidden part of the tapestry, and I think it’s an apt analogy, with all credit owed to the fabulous Carole King, to say that our family histories are tapestries of many colors, with threads or whole segments left to discover.  Just know that there will likely be unusual coincidences that make themselves known as you uncover more of that tapestry; don’t discard them just because they seem unlikely.

[i] John Baxter Black diaries and family papers 1875-2014, New York Public Library finding aid, http://archives.nypl.org/mss/23785


  1. I am a Gorey fan myself and was directed to this blog via an instagram account named Queer_modernisms. I am glad I checked this out! Your family connection with Gorey sounds like serendipity to me.

    1. "..sounds like serendipity to me." - Agreed!

  2. steven robert watson23 February, 2023 19:27

    Fascinating entry, and wonderful photos of Ashbery and O'Hara that are new to me. thank you

    1. I'm glad to be able to share them - I scanned them from my cousin's album about two weeks before he died. His executors did not save the album, to my horror, but I got the most important photos scanned for posterity.